Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Trek record

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Trekking, as we know it, is actually a spin-off of the work of the early 19th century European explorers, surveyors and map-makers. Hiring local hunters and shepherds as guides, they followed the barely marked trails plied by earlier natives. The first adventurers, in the true sense, were mountaineers who had little to do with exploration and map-making, but were obsessed with climbing the virgin snows of the  system.

By the 1920s, yet another breed of adventurer was roaming this great knot of high peaks and glaciers. This bunch did not climb per se. Driven by curiosity, they simply walked the trails. Their purpose was largely historical and sociological studies and they worked on shoestring budgets. There was, of course, another sub-caste: wealthy, highly educated, cultured persons of the world. Theirs was the best written record.

Mountain walking or trekking, whatever you may call it, in the modern sense, began in the 1950s. Its practitioners were a breed not as exalted as hardcore mountaineers; they had no desire to stand on untrammelled snow. Their wish was to get into the vicinity of the throne rooms of mountain gods and gaze at them from the closest possible quarters.

In our part of the world, the great trekking areas of the Western Himalayas, Karakoram and Hindu Kush mountains have been an attraction ever since trekking came of age. Here we had the all time favourite route from Skardu via Askole and the Baltoro Glacier to Concordia. This breathtaking confluence of several glaciers got its name from the explorer Martin Conway in 1892. The attraction here is the majestic panorama of Chhogho Ri (K-2) to the north; the four Gasherbrum peaks to the east and Chhogho Lingtza (incorrectly Chogolisa) to the southeast. Abutting this magnificent peak, sit the Masherbrum peaks in a crystal line on the south.

With so much to offer, this must surely be the most walked route in the entire country. Others such as the Biafo-Hisper Pass-Nagar route stand as close second for frequency of trekkers. Many come to see what Conway saw when he became the first European surveyor here. Few know that long before Conway, raiders from Nagar periodically came down on Askole to rob for foodstuffs.

Further to the north, hardcore trekkers take the shepherds route from Shimshal over the pass by the same name to Shuwert. Tough as it is, especially in its lower reach, this is the litmus test that sets the minnows apart from the real trekker. The prize is picturesque Shuwert; the only summer pastures in Pakistan that, geographically speaking, lie in Central Asia. That is, north of the Great Asiatic Divide.
In Hindu Kush, there are rather easier trails of varied interest for trekkers. The one — north from Chitral to Broghal Pass into Wakhan — was a popular one which slipped into the background in the early 1980s because of the war in Afghanistan. If it looked set to recover after the Soviet withdrawal, it lost out again after 9/11 and the proximity to the zone of fighting.

Currently, another problem assails this great route. Since Pakistan works on principles of economy that are followed nowhere else, the scarcity of trekkers has tremendously hiked up the cost. Whereas normally a couple of porters per person would cost about Rs 10,000 for the trek, the asking price earlier this year was reportedly Rs 125,000 per person! Naturally, there were no takers.

But there is something to be said for the hill walker who will hump his 25 kilogram backpack and go it alone. For him neither Broghal nor Shimshal means any expenditure. Of this breed, there seems to be a serious deficit in Pakistan.

The round trek of Nanga Parbat and the several treks in Swat Kohistan are similarly well-trodden, accessible and fairly easy. But all these routes have now been virtually flogged to death.

Of recent years, the several passes around Sim Gang Glacier (aka Snow Lake) have received the attention of both Pakistani and foreign trekkers. So far as local adventurers were concerned, this was mainly because of the availability of the Leomann maps of the region which, though not topographical, provide essential information and have helped open up new routes.

I have seen foreign trekking parties sometimes in possession of first-class topographical maps of one-inch-is-to-a-mile scale. This is the premium sheet necessary for the adventurer who would go it alone without guide or porter. Unfortunately, because of our security state mentality, Pakistanis are denied access to this map.

Now, the knot of mountains in the north is a summer trekking region. What just a handful of us realise is that the south, the Khirthar Mountains of Sindh, the Suleman Mountains of southern Punjab and the several ranges in Balochistan are a prize waiting for the one who would go hill walking in winter in a region of which little is known outside.

In the Khirthar, there are several east-west passes, some like the Moola are jeepable, others only for foot traffic. Here one finds long hours of walking through waterless tracts only to be suddenly confronted with deep ponds of liquid emerald teeming with fish – and sometimes crocodiles and gavials. Here are refreshing oases of prosopis and tacoma rich with birdsong. All is not just harsh, arid landscape as one is led to believe.

There are several climbable peaks in the Khirthar. Kutte ji Qabar (Dog’s Grave), Mian Ghun, and dozens of unnamed ones are all accessible through some of the most dramatic and little seen landscapes. Northwards, where the Khirthar runs into the Central Brahui Mountains, there are yet more peaks and valleys that await the crunch of the hill walker’s boots.

No Khirthar summit rises any higher than 2,200 metres while the Central Brahui Mountains peak at 3,277 metres on Koh e Maran (Mountain of Snakes), a remarkably beautiful oblong with a coned summit. In this very range, there are nearly a dozen peaks upwards of 2,800 metres. Moreover, there are any number of migratory tracks followed by Brahui and Baloch shepherds on there twice annual transhumance. As well as that, river valleys like the Mashkai and Hingol are places straight out of an Allan Quartermain yarn. Sadly, the current state of unrest in Balochistan puts these mountains out of the reach of the non-Baloch.

In southwest Punjab, despite its nearness to lawless South Waziristan, one can wander for months on end in the Suleman Hills. Nowhere higher than 2,328 metres, the range is a series of highs and troughs that daily whip up fantastic weather conditions in the afternoon. Here, one is treated almost nightly to the most incredible firestorms.

This range culminates in the 3,379-metre Takht e Suleman, a virtually waterless mountain. Once thickly covered with chilghoza pine (now sadly much depleted) which thrives in high altitude aridity, this is certainly the most difficult trek in the south.

As opposed to the well-trodden trails of Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral, Balochistan, Sindh and southwest Punjab offer a novel trekking experience where only the intrepid may pass. This is truly a country where travel is still anxiety-making laced with a huge dose of uncertainty for, no one ever having trekked in these regions, the only source of information is the local guide. It needs be said that if the guide is a Baloch or a Brahui, then one is in the securest of hands. These two must surely rank as the most reliable and trustworthy races in the country.

Another unknown quantity is the area surrounding Ziarat, east of Quetta. Famous for its juniper forests which, incidentally, cover over 50,000 hectares, the country is a hill walker’s dream. Uncrowded, quiet, scented with the sweet fragrance of juniper and dozens of wild herbs, this is a country where one is actually all by oneself. Since the trails are known only to forest guards and local shepherds, a guide is necessary for which the office of the DFO at Ziarat can be helpful.

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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days